THE DAY WAS bright and sunny. Not the kind of day you would expect evil to strike, but this is not the kind of evil you’d expect striking.
Betty Fierros decided that such a nice day needed to be soaked up. A large fake straw hat hiding her face from the sun, a couple layers of acrylic clothing to shelter her from the heat, she looked like your typical little old lady out for a promenade around the neighborhood. Unless, of course, you saw the key chain declaring “Been There, Done That” attached to her floral belt pouch. And, of course, unless you knew what that keychain actually meant.
But if you knew, she’d have to kill you. Or, scold you, really bad.
You see, Betty Fierros was not just some senior citizen “snowbird”. Well she was, yes, but she was so much more than that. She was – a superhero.
Go ahead and laugh, but SuperElder stood up for the weak and innocent of all ages!
What have you done lately?
Anyway, back to the story.
The day was bright and sunny, a typical Phoenix day. She decided to talk a walk, enjoy the day. Being SuperElder was a tough job, and it was also a night job. True, it’s hard for her to lie to her husband saying she was going to bed when she was actually going to fight crime. But it was a necessary evil. Besides, he never suspected. He worked all day, and was usually snoozing before Must See TV came on. In the past few weeks, they had seen very little of each other. And that worried Betty. She just didn’t quite know why.
The sun made her forget. Amazing how much you miss seeing it even while living in the desert, taking for granted it’s there when you only go out at night. Not today. No SuperElder right now. Just herself, the sun, the neighborhood of white-plastered adobes–
–and the police sirens ten blocks up the road.
Betty stopped dead in her tracks. The keychain glowed slightly as she listened over the sirens to the shoutings of the police officers.
“Dispatch, get some more flowering (Betty didn’t believe in swearing) men down here! If we don’t go in soon, we’re going to lose them–and the Mayor’s father’s in there! Hurry the flower up!”
That was all Betty needed to hear. No one was in sight. She ducked into the nearest fenced yard. In one semifluid move, the keychain was off the pouch and over her head.
“AARP*!” she shouted into the air. A Chihuahua emerged from her doghouse yipping at the intruder. It turned tail quickly though when a prism of light shot out from the keychain, which melted away in ripples to become a multi-faceted crystal. The light engulfed Betty, smothering her with rainbows. When it retreated to its source, Betty was no longer there.
SuperElder had arrived.
Her outfit was a tasteful floral design of blues, greens and oranges. Everything was loose fitting, from bosom to boots, and topped off with a silky long jacket that flapped behind her like a winged cape. A band of purple rubber covered her eyes and ears, fitting into the wrinkles with ease and comfort. The floral nylon belt pouch was still firmly wrapped around her not so firm waist, and the crystal now hung around her neck on a pricey golden chain.
She was ready and raring for action.
“High there!” she commanded, pointing to a certain place in the sky.
Like an old steam engine started up after a decade of neglect, SuperElder rose into the air and flew off towards the disturbance. Using her special supervision, she was able to see the ground clearly from within a cumulous cloud. It was one of Phoenix’s many retired homes where SuperElder was almost a patron saint. One of the many adobe complexes that was built in a hurry to meet the flood of retiring men and women attracted like moths to the Phoenix sun. SuperElder recognized this one as Cactus Hills.
Outside, in the courtyard between the main building and the stone fence, were a handful of squad cars, ambulances and fire engines. They were busy keeping the press outside the gate while staying as far ahead as they can without trespassing within a certain zone around the building. Something big was happening. The press was chomping at the bit.
“Low there!” she commanded, pointing at the top of a squad car. She fell from the sky and landed hard, shattering the car’s windows. Unfazed, she stood at attention, ready for action in a heroic pose.
Lt. Murray Amsterdam brushed glass off his trenchcoat and poured out his shrapnel filled coffee before looking up at her. His emotionless face would’ve made Medusa proud.
“Howdy, SE, realized you’d left one of my cars with the windows intact?” he drawled with a strong Texan accent. Lt. Amsterdam is a fine man, SuperElder thought, but he likes the Cowboys. Oh well, not everyone can be perfect.
“What has happened, Lieutenant?”
“Seems some old Mexican hombre has holed himself inside the mess hall, gots all the old folks in there and their families that what came today to visit’em.”
True enough. Above the main entrance hung a banner proclaiming in large red letters “Family Day” except the D was now covered over with what looked like brown spit to spell out Stay instead of Day. She had seen the spit a couple times before. Someone had broken into a municipal building downtown, the one that contained the city’s residential addresses, and left the spit on some of the guards. They had reported seeing an old Mexican bandit breaking in and accessing the directory mainframe. Three break-ins total that she’d responded to, but not once did she see the bandito.
Today just might be her lucky day.
“Has he made any demands?”
“Yah, in fact, I was about to carry it out.”
“What is it?”
SuperElder entered through the kitchen service door, figuring that would be the least likely place to find resistance. And she didn’t want to take the chance of breaking through a window and scaring someone to death. Lt. Amsterdam said everyone was in the mess hall, but she wasn’t going to take any chances. If one elderly person was injured because of her, the crystal would lose its powers and she’d be normal old Betty Fierros again.
Wasting no time on sight seeing, she went to the saloon-style doors that led into the mess hall. Sounds of pain and torture, from horrible moaning to gleeful cackling. Above that was a Mexican accent recounting a stereotypical story of the old days. A quick glance outside described the horror.
An elderly man dressed like a worn down Mexican bandit with a handkerchief tied around his head sat in the middle of two circles. The innermost was composed of parents and their children. Their eyes were glazed, their heads rolled about their shoulders on limp necks, and they swayed to the rhythm of the man’s story. The outer ring was made of the nursing home residents. All were apparently not suffering and moaning like the younger people. In fact, they appeared to be having fun, clapping, attentive and prodding the younger folk whenever the latter began to doze off. It was horrifying to watch. But at least because the residents were animated it meant whatever trance the man was weaving wouldn’t affect her.
She grabbed a clump of old ribbon candy from her pouch and licked it. Moving at superspeed, she slipped out into the room and chucked it at his face. The clump broke apart in mid air and each projectile glistened as it sped to target. The man had little time to react before the sticky candy clung to his face and filled his mouth. With the story no longer being told, the young folk started to come out of the trance, but very slowly, as if climbing out of a vat of thick green Jell-O.
SuperElder struck a heroic pose under the light of a fluorescent lamp.
“My friends, do not fear. SuperElder is here,” she said gaily.
But the usually blindly grateful people turned on her with such an animosity in their eyes that had not the man held them back they would’ve rushed her–well, wheeled or stumbled at her, actually, but those walkers and canes looked mighty dangerous. Real faux metal.
The man spit the mass back at her. She knocked it down harmlessly. The two gladiators stood silently for a moment, sizing each other up. She saw a bandito, short and stout with a crooked mustache and a sombrero with a rim so big it could’ve been mistaken for a UFO. He wore his belt like a bandoleer, leaving his dungarees to slip underneath his paunch whenever he raised his arms. The two gun holsters on his hips seemed to each contain a wad of fresh bills, the ones so crisp they cut. He was dirty, dusty, dressed drably, but somehow familiar.
He snorted his opinion about her and spat into an invisible spittoon.
“What’re you? A reject from Florida?” he scoffed, his accent thick and heavy.
“I am SuperElder,” she responded, not quite sure what he meant by that remark. “You wanted to see me?”
“Si, porque estoy oyendo malas cosas sobre tu.” He undid the belt and snapped it away from him. It cracked like a leather bullwhip, and somehow seemed to actually grow longer, or maybe that was just the lighting. “Parece que Usted no le importan las viejas.”
“I have no idea what you just said.”
“I said it appears the elderly are not important to you.”
“What are you talking about? I am the protector of the very young and very old.”
“You are not a very good protector, amiga.”
“Who are you to judge me?” she retorted, reaching into her pouch slowly to not draw attention.
“I am called El BisAbuelo. That means the Great Grandfather.”
“Did that come on a novelty mug?”
His lips curled in a snarl. In that instant SuperElder pulled a ball of yarn from her pouch and hurled it at him.
“Ball knit!” she exclaimed.
The ball unraveled itself, and in mid air began to knit into a blanket faster than a Betty pumped up with caffeine. In a flash it was upon him, and in a flash the belt whipped out and smacked it away. But the blanket clung to the belt, ripping it out of his hand as it brought them both to the floor.
El BisAbuelo looked up from his belt, chuckling. “Is that el mejor that you can–“
His words were cut off by a fist in the stomach. SuperElder had flown in behind the ball to sock him one when he was distracted. He doubled over in pain but pulled out her feet from under her, crashing her to the ground. He brought down his booted foot to her chest but she rolled away and was back on her feet.
They met in the middle of the circles like two lions fighting for a lioness. Blow was met by block, every time, back and forth. The balance of power was so even that when they locked hands in a struggle, neither was moved the smallest possible fraction of a centimeter. No matter how much strength each put into their feet and arms, they stood as solidly unmovable as Strom Thurmond on Capital Hill. Minutes passed. The elderly men and women moved to protect their still swooning families, raising canes and walkers into a protective wall.
It wasn’t until SuperElder noticed a glowing coming through El BisAbuelo’s shirt that the grip was broken when she stumbled backwards in surprise, bringing down the still clinging man with her. She pulled him over her head and kicked away. He landed hard, breaking a table by the door. She flew after him, pinched his cheek to get him to stand and was about to toss him back into the circle when he yanked her hand away from his face.
“Why not take this away from where people can get hurt?”
SuperElder thought for a second then let him go. He held out his hand, and the belt flew to it. She did the same, and her ball returned to her.
“See you outside,” El BisAbuelo chuckled. In an instant he was gone, running down the corridor, leaving a sonic boom in his wake.
The concussion wave knocked her down briefly, but she was on her feet with her next breath.
“Fast forward!” she screamed, and flew off at breakneck speed after him.
He led her through corridor after corridor, stairwell after stairwell. She had caught up with him quick, but she never got close enough to grab him, try what she may. And no matter what he tried, his blur of feet was never able to break him truly away. She wasn’t sure why, or why he was leading her throughout the entire building. Perhaps he thought she’d tire, but she was as virile as he.
Finally they exploded into the inner courtyard of the Spanish style building. He stopped with such force a three-foot trench of dirt was thrown into the air. SuperElder pulled up so quickly above the entrance, the only entrance that a gust of wind burst unto the courtyard and knocked him down. She settled to hover in front of the thrown open double doors as he got back on his feet. The silence was thick, and so was the animosity.
“There’s no where to go now, BisAbuelo, but through me!”
His hands flickered over his holsters. “Is that an invitation?”
SuperElder descended to the ground and struck a heroic pose. “Try it and I’ll sing.”
He yanked out the wads of their holsters and charged.
SuperElder let him get within ten feet before she opened her mouth. And out of that mouth came a demonic lullaby.
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word!”
Only it wasn’t a sweet or harmonic or melodious or even in tune. The pitch was off by a whole note. The rhythm was like a drunk frog leaping across a busy freeway. When it should have been soft, the notes came out like the screeches of a barn owl or a mouse about to be eaten by one. For blocks around the building, dogs howled and snapped at each other. Satellite TV was disrupted in a block radius. It was terrible.
And El BisAbuelo was getting the worst of it.
He doubled over in real agonizing pain, the money wads pressed against his ears, trying in vain to block out the noise that was tearing apart every cell in his body. SuperElder, poised like an opera star, continued singing, unaware that anything was wrong.
El BisAbuelo, gasping for breath, had only one recourse. Pulling away the wads from his ears, he pointed them at that mouth and yelled: ” Callate!”
The money flew from his hands and enwrapped her mummylike, beginning with the face. The moment the torture stopped, he sank into the silence full of relief. A few straggling howls were heard in the silence as the bills continued to multiply and spread over her body. Her struggles were in vain. Within seconds her feet and arms were bound. Unbalanced, she toppled to the ground beside him, right on her face.
El BisAbuelo rolled her over and carefully peeled the bill off her eyes.
“No more singing?”
Her eyes shook no, a look of anger and fear filled them.
He peeled more off her nose and mouth. She glared at him while gasping for breath.
“Now we will talk,” he said, sitting back on her legs.
“Let me go first.”
“Always orders with you.” He got up, turned his back to her. “You remind me of my wife. They’ll come off in a while.”
She struggled some more. He was right. They were beginning to loosen already.
“All right,” she said, stopping struggling, “until I can take you in, tell me what your diabolical plot is.”
He turned back, a sour almost hurt expression on his face.
“It is not diabolical. I am doing what you are not. I am helping those of our age.”
“What are you talking about? I help them. I make sure they don’t get hurt or stolen from, and if they are I catch the whipper-snapper.” The outer layer of bills began to peel off. SuperElder was able to raise her head and look at him. “What are you doing for them? Turning them against their families?”
“No, I’m bringing their families back to them. I’m putting back together what was broken apart by modern family values.”
Suddenly she found herself sitting. “You can’t put families back together with crazy glue–or whatever that trance was.”
“That was a story designed to make the young ones respect their elders again, and you disrupted it!” He whipped his belt dangerously close to her eyes. “I almost had the children willing to take back and love their parents again.”
“Just because their children don’t live with them anymore doesn’t mean they don’t love them anymore.” Her arms detached from her sides. “And even if they don’t, is it better for us, for people our age, to know that they are living in a house where the love is not genuine but forced upon them by some bandito’s trance?”
Her legs came apart. The bills were falling off in clumps now. El BisAbuelo was dumbstruck. He stood thinking things he hadn’t considered when he began his master plan. SuperElder saw the window of opportunity. She continued talking while she yanked and shook off the remaining loathsome bills.
“I know why you’re mad at me. I haven’t been paying attention to what some of them really want, to be back with their families, to feel loved.” She stood up and tore a chunk off that covered her crystal, throwing it away in disgust. On the ground the bills dissolved in bubbles and foam. Easy come, easy go. “But you can’t solve such a problem the way you are trying. I wish it was that easy, but changing years of custom can’t be done with a song.”
He looked like a lost puppy. “I have to do something. I can’t stand by and watch people like me die alone when I have the power to do something about it. You know how that feels. You have part of the crystal.”
He reached under his shirt and pulled out a glowing shard of crystal on a leather cord. He walked closer, and the closer he got the more it glowed. Fingering her own, she watched it brighten as the distance between the two shrunk.
“What is this? I thought I had the only one.”
El BisAbuelo shook his head sadly. “My fragment has been passed down for centuries. The legend tells of a powerful crystal split at the beginning of civilization and sent across the world. My father gave it to me the day he died, as have all the fathers in my family done in the hope that one day the crystal would be reunited to the benefit of all mankind.”
“I’ve heard the same stories,” she responded, barely whispering.
Carefully, full of concern, she reached out and brushed his shard. A bolt of energy shot out and laced hers, sending an electric tingle throughout her body. The expression on his face told her he’d felt it, too.
“I never thought they were true.” Holding hers like a precious glass figurine, she knew what had to be done. He was the criminal, but her curiosity was too great. And in a way, she knew it was her duty to fulfill the legend. “There’s only one way to know.”
El BisAbuelo raised a questioning eyebrow. SuperElder held out her fragment, openly pointed towards him. Catching on with a startled “oh, right” never voiced, he held up his pointed towards her.
Each taking a deep breath, the worthy adversaries held out their fragments and let them unite.
They struck, and a beam of light shot out unto them both, scanning from head down, dissolving their disguises.
Betty Fierros stood in shock, gaping at Ramon Fierros, and he gaped right back at her.
“But how did–“
“What are you–“
“We have to get out of here!” they agreed, and yanked at the crystal.
The crystal, after having waited eons to be whole again, wasn’t about to let go and nothing short of a nuclear blast was going to separate them.
“Dios mio, dios mio, dios mio…”
“Shut up! Don’t panic!” Betty yanked harder and harder. It was stubborn, like Strom Thurmond.
“Don’t panic? Betty, listen–the police are inside!”
She stopped yanking. The police were in the mess hall, rounding up the elderlies for questioning and shipping off the woozy younglings to the paramedics. SWAT members were combing the halls with their light equipped rifles, even though the hallways were bathed in fluorescent light and the sun was still raining down heat. They would be at the courtyard soon.
“Okay, okay, we must go, now,” she concluded matter-of-factly.
“And how do we do that, Betty? We’re stuck together!”
A light came on in her mind, shining through her eyes like headlights.
“Stuck together…that’s the point.”
“Betty, this is no time to be thinking.”
“No, stuck together–don’t you see? It’s the fulfillment of the legend.”
The light exploded so intensely in Ramon Fierros’ head smoke poured from his ears.
” Claro que si! We have to be together and work together–
“–to benefit mankind!”
The reconciliation kiss was brief but as powerful as a nuclear blast rumbling through them. The crystal came apart and transformed back to a mundane shape. But hers was no longer a key chain. It was a cheap necklace, the kind best friends give to each other so they know that no matter how much they change over the years they can always know each other. She looked at Ramon, and sure enough, he had the other half.
“Do you think it’s telling us something?” he asked, smiling like a playful schoolboy.
“Yes.” The police rounded the corner to the courtyard. Even without superhearing they were audible. “We need a cover story.”
Ramon pulled her to his side, wrapping her hand in his. “That’s my specialty.”
The police burst unto the tender scene, sweeping their inefficient lights around the fully lit area.
“Now how are we supposed to do that in this weather?” Betty Fierros demanded, assuming an offended pose.
Lieutenant Amsterdam, with a new cup of coffee in a spill proof containing, stepped up.
“What’re you two doin’ in here?”
Ramon Fierros stepped up to shield his wife and looked the officer square in the eye. The half a dozen men with him never suspected what was coming.
“Officer, let me tell you what kind of day I’ve been having. It all began…”
Ten minutes later the officers escorted them out and even offered them a ride home, but both said they preferred to walk. The caper was over. Walking back in the sunshine with the air perfumed by jasmine and mint from numerous house gardens, they walked with lighter hearts. Secrets are terrible things to have to keep to yourself, after all.
“Betty, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful partnership.”
Fierros hooked her arm in his. “It already was, and always will be.”
* American Association for Retired Persons